Along with a declining birth rate, critics say an out-of-date funding model is closing the doors at hundreds of schools across Ontario, like PCVS.

When the Ontario advocacy group People for Education (P4E) last gathered data in 2009, 172 publicly-funded elementary and secondary schools were slated or recommended to close by 2012, with another 163 under review for possible closure. It’s the largest slew of school closures in Ontario since cuts to education funding by the Mike Harris government forced the closure of more than 250 schools between 1999 and 2004.

The group points to declining enrolment driven by declining birth rates and an out-of-date Harris-era funding model to explain why so many boards are closing school doors.

Enrolment at Ontario elementary schools dropped 15% between 1997 and 2009 and secondary school enrolment decreased by 14% between 2002 and 2009. A declining fertility rate is mainly driving declining enrolment. “In Ontario, enrolment is declining in all but 17 school boards,” a 2009 P4E report notes.

“While the decline is much more extreme in Northern and rural Ontario, it is also being felt in the core of Ontario’s older cities.” Only areas experiencing high rates of new immigrant settlement have steady or growing enrolment rates, P4E spokesperson Gay Stephenson told Arthur.

Declining enrolment is a growing problem nation-wide and “Statistics Canada does not predict any school-age population boom in the foreseeable future,” the report states. With low local population growth predicted by the province into the next few decades, Peterborough is no exception.

In the case of PCVS, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board has taken all of the heat for the closure decision, but as Stephenson points out, provincial funding puts pressure on boards to close schools when enrolment declines.
“Ultimately, the rubber hits the road at the school board, they have to make the final decision,” she said. “But [provincial] funding has an enormous impact on the decisions that they can make.”

Stephenson’s organization is calling on the province to revise that funding, which is still based on a model brought in by the Harris government in 1997.

“When [Ontario’s school funding formula] was originally devised it was devised on a lot of assumptions, and not necessarily real benchmarks.” One of those assumptions was that school populations were on average greater than P4E’s research at the time showed they really were. Since funding was given out partly based on a strict ratio of students to floor space, the funding model encouraged school boards with declining enrolment to invest their limited funds in fewer schools. Since that time, the Liberals have added grants here and there to help boards cope with declining enrolment and other challenges, but the overall funding scheme has stayed the same. The funding model “should be reviewed and updated to reflect the realities of today,” Stephenson said.

With no real commitment from provincial parties to change the funding formula, school boards are pressured to shift students to fewer schools to keep school populations near levels set in 1997.

Stephenson believes more research needs to be done to determine optimal sizes for Ontario schools.  “There’s a great deal of research that says that there are optimal sizes for schools, where students are most successful, at school and at life, at graduating, and feeling connected to their communities,” she said.

Finland seems to have the question of optimal school size figured out. According to the U.S. National Centre for Education Statistics, that country has some of the world’s smallest average school sizes and some of the most successful students.
Stephenson said her organization wants the province to investigate what size of school is best for Ontario students and adjust its funding accordingly, rather than encouraging schools to stay big simply to save money.

There are other reasons critics are calling for a new funding model to keep schools open. York University Geography Professor Ranu Basu has studied the impact of school closures on neighbourhoods in Toronto. She said that schools act as “neighbourhood hubs” which often provide more services than education, including child care centres, “inter-generational programs”, and parenting and settlement centres. She said that the network of connections those kinds of programs spring from take many years and lots of resources to cultivate and are lost when a school closes its doors.

She also noted how important schools are to community identity, saying that the loss of a school can be a “blow for the community morale.”

As it stands, “looking at community issues and what the school provides in terms of a broader sense is often neglected,” she said.

Basu wants to see a more “integrated” approach to decisions in the education system, that would take into account the many roles schools play in neighbourhoods and communities. She said school boards should work more closely with municipal governments, social agencies and youth. She thinks that broader thinking about what schools mean and offer to communities will lead to funding that reflects their true value.

Education planning also needs to be more long term, according to Basu. Enrolment might currently be declining in most areas, but she noted that ups-and-downs in enrolment and community use of school facilities are cyclical. “It’s much much easier to close a school than it is to build one.”

Basu added that when school boards do decide to close schools, it’s usually low-income neighbourhoods with higher unemployment and more new immigrants that are the first to lose their schools. “Schools that are more marginalized are often the most targeted,” she stated.

Basu criticized the accommodation review process school boards use to decide which schools to close as often “tokenistic,” leaving some voices out of decision-making and giving a false sense of decision-making power to community members.
Stephenson shared that concern. “I think one of the biggest complaints that people have is that they go into the process thinking that those committees will be listened to and will have some kind of impact on the decision and quite often people come away from those processes feeling like they had no impact at all, but that really the decisions were already made in advance,” she stated.

The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board says that by 2015, Peterborough’s four high schools would be 2700 students below capacity if all the schools stay open. But in a time of declining enrolment across the province, the Ministry of Education may soon have to rethink exactly what the realistic capacities of individual schools are.